The Anatomy of a Pogrom: Looking Back at Godhra

The Godhra riots in 2002 represented a fundamental shift in India’s polity and was also a testing ground for political Hindutva. 

As violence erupted in Delhi, just before Donald Trump’s visit, the mainstream media took its time to turn its lens away from Hyderabad House to the northeastern parts of the city. Even as reports of mobs looting and rampaging predominantly Muslim households flooded in, along with reports of arson and bullet injuries and killings, it took the Prime Minister 69 hours to take cognisance of the unfolding events. 

Meanwhile, nomenclature wars began to be fought in the public sphere, with people from all political shades weighing in on whether to call the events unfolding in Delhi “clashes,” a “riot,” or a “pogrom.” What will emerge as the dominant narrative remains unclear at the moment. Political commentators have drawn distinctions between the two other instances of such widespread violence in recent history—Delhi in 1984 and Godhra in 2002. 

The death toll currently stands at 46. On 26 February, Sonia Gandhi held a press conference where she unequivocally demanded that Home Minister Amit Shah resign. In the inevitable whataboutery that followed, several senior Bharatiya Janata Party ministers countered Gandhi’s demand by raising questions about the Congress’s role in 1984. Now, the Delhi High Court has issued an order that a FIR be lodged against Gandhi for hate speech, even as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders like Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur, who have been caught on camera inciting violence remain free

A number of  media organisations and journalists have drawn parallels to the 2002 pogrom in Godhra. Several articles published in EPW in the last few decades have looked at the rise of Hindutva.Godhra can be located in the background of systemically inculcated religious biases. Rustom Bharucha has explored how the right wing’s rhetoric has reduced the diversity of Indian Muslims to a demonised, monolithic minority. This discourse has contributed to the political and social polarisation that we are witnessing right now. Several historians and political commentators saw Godhra as a turning point towards political Hindutva, precisely because Narendra Modi, who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, did not face any consequences for the scale of violence that he failed to control. 

We are witnessing a similar situation now, where any dissenting voices, be it that of Sonia Gandhi or Justice Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court (who insisted on FIRs being registered against Kapil Mishra and others immediately), are being stifled in various ways. This reading list explores the event and the aftermath of Godhra in 2002.  

A Watershed

After 2002, Ramaswamy R Iyer argued that what had transpired in Godhra was a national catastrophe. Iyer saw it as a turning point in Indian history and pointed out the state government’s culpability. Despite that, he predicted that it was likely that the BJP would continue to hold political power in Gujarat because there did not appear to be any possibility of holding the state government under Narendra Modi, which was supported by the central government, accountable for the pogrom. He wrote, “Both the state and the central government have lost the moral authority to rule, but there seems to be no way of making them quit.” 

There is no regret or remorse in Gujarat at what has happened; perhaps there is even jubilation. Ordinary, ‘decent’ Gujarati Hindus tend to defend and justify the horrors. On the other hand, grief and anger must have built up to dangerous levels among the Muslims. The divide between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat seems deep and unbridgeable; elsewhere, too, it is deepening. The sane, liberal, humane voices in Gujarat are muted; one hears that those who occasionally issue anguished statements or try to organise peace marches are advised to keep quiet in their own interest.

Rights over Religion

Following the riots in Godhra, Dipankar Gupta wrote, “A modern democracy cannot tolerate matters of faith trumping over matters of citizenship rights.” Gupta argued that, post Godhra, it became evident that riots are “created” and not a communal conflict that has suddenly gotten out of hand. He saw the events of Godhra as a crisis of secularism and argued that the idea of “tolerant secularism” does not work in reality. Therefore, he wrote, there is a need to strengthen constitutional secularism in a manner where we insist, as a society, that the law applies to everyone equally, which he believed would situate the law over religious considerations. 

 What happened to Gujarat after the Godhra incident on February 27 also confirms that riots are not spontaneous. It is not just anger boiling over, but there is a great deal of planning that goes behind riots. Targets are carefully selected – and rarely, if ever, are mistakes made even in densely mixed population areas [see also Breman 1999:267-68]. Naroda Petia and Gomtipur in Ahmedabad saw the same pattern repeat itself. Occasionally, there are lapses, but given the scale of rioting it is not possible that such accuracy in attacking the minority communities could have been possible without deliberate planning. Both 1984 Delhi and 2002 Ahmedabad may give the feeling that the killings were spontaneous, but it would be a mistake to yield to this superficial and popular impression. 

Without Words

Tanika Sarkar argued that Gujarat was a testing ground for the hindu right to measure the tolerance of the Indian polity. She was also of the opinion that Gujarat in 2002 represented a turning point in the history of independent India. It was a fundamental political transformation that heralded the aspiration for a Hindu Rashtra. Sarkar insisted that it was not a collapse of the state machinery that we were looking at in Gujarat. Rather, it was the complete penetration of the Sangh Parivar into the heart of this machinery, even at the grass-roots level, including the police and healthcare centres. She wrote that our vocabulary is inadequate to describe the horrors of what happened in Gujarat. She wrote, “Words like communal violence or carnage or massacre have been overused to describe far too many situations whose horror is minimal, even relatively ‘innocent,’ compared to the last four months in Gujarat.” The words that we do have tend to have been overused and stretched  to such an extent that they normalise the horror of these incidents which have radically new meanings, and make them more bearable.

Bystanders and survivors during the days of maximal violence were struck by the festive, carnivalesque aspect of rampaging mobs. Indeed, one such mob looked like a ‘barat’, a wedding band, to unsuspecting Muslims on the fateful morning of February 28. Gujarat was also a testing-ground, a measuring of the tolerance-level of the Indian polity, by the fathers of the new nation. There has, indeed, been horrified anguish, protest, sincere relief and rehabilitation efforts from the whole world. Nonetheless, the Modi government continues to enjoy the full support of the centre, the NDA holds firm, the Sangh is going to get its chosen president.

Counterproductive Police

Now, as well as in Gujarat in 2002 and Delhi in 1984, the role of the police during communal situations has followed the same pattern. The inaction of the police in all these instances has enabled the majority community to unleash unchecked violence. A report from 1987 in EPW, following a riot in Old Delhi, where the police had once again failed to act to de-escalate the situation observed that the police, especially in north India, has always been “highly communal,” because they are mostly recruited from majority communities who are conditioned with Islamophobic idelogies. 

The Indian police, it seems, is adept in missing the culprit and in killing the innocent. It might be a worthwhile exercise to compile a list of those shot down by the police during communal riots in India, and find out how many among them were rioters and how many were pedestrians caught in the melee, children peeping out of windows or rooftops, old people unaware of a suddenly imposed curfew, or even younger people trying to prevent communal riots in the streets. The recent communal flare-up in Old Delhi provided the police with yet another opportunity to prove their dexterity in letting off the guilty and killing the innocent. The disturbances started on May 19, and curfew was imposed the same evening. But while before the imposition of curfew only two people had lost their lives in the riots, in the next three curfew-bound days at least six were killed, the majority being victims of police firing. Of these again, most were innocent bystanders. One was a young man who was shot dead while he was washing in the courtyard of his own house. Another young boy who was sitting inside his room was killed by a bullet fired by a policeman who took aim at the room. In one respect however the police were sure of their targets. They chose to hit out mainly at muslims and their houses.

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